Driving down the road, Pete Haviland sees ghosts of dead dogs. Once he drove his car into a field, swerving to miss a brown chow that wasn't there when he got out to check. When he shivers, his girlfriend knows he's seen something. What bothers him is when he sees deer that his passengers don't.
What bothers Carolyn Phinny is when her boyfriend's ghosts appear indoors. Pete woke her up a month ago when he saw the ghost of his dead grandfather standing at the foot of his bed.
"He checks up on me," Pete says. They're driving down a dark road to a cemetery outside town. Pete's the lead investigator for Lone Star Spirits, a group that tries to verify the existence of ghosts. He's taking deep breaths and trying to clear his mind, open it up for the hunt.
"It always weirds her out," Pete says, "so I don't tell her too much."
"Are you serious?" Carolyn asks. "There's stuff going on you don't tell me about?""Just at sites."
"Don't you think you need to tell me about it?"
"You're not in harm's way, baby. What am I supposed to say? 'There's a black shape standing beside you'? That'd freak you out."
"No," she says. "It'd just give me the shivvies."
"Baby, I love you. But the first time we ever see anything, I'll have to have a collar on you."
Pete's never scared of the ghosts he sees. He wasn't scared of his grandfather when he was alive; why be scared now? Pete goes hunting with his group nearly every weekend. But other times the ghosts just show up.
"You don't have to try to find them," Pete says. "Sometimes they'll find you."
"My husband's a total nonbeliever," says Terri Higgins, sitting down to dinner. "He thinks we're a bunch of kooks." He asks if she's got fresh underwear when she leaves for a hunt with Lone Star Spirits. She tells him that he collects coins and she seeks ghosts -- it's her hobby, accept it. He tells her she's crazy.
The best part of being in Lone Star Spirits, Terri says, is meeting people who understand and see the same unseeable things. Tonight, she's having dinner with two other Lone Star officers at the Old Spaghetti Warehouse. None of them look like kooks. Terri, a short, curly-haired blonde, is a legal secretary. Pete, who does inventory management, is here without Carolyn. And Katie Phillips, the group's founder, is an accountant with chestnut hair so long she can almost sit on it. They look normal. Their jobs are normal. But together, they happily explain the paranormal.
"Most people accept death," Pete says. "When the light comes, they go. But when their death is sudden and tragic, there's a lot of emotion there and a lot of quickness, and you don't know that you're dead. You'll just be walking around like you always did and not understanding."
"Ghosts are just people without bodies," Katie says. Imagine you're in a room and no one's paying attention to you; no one's listening to you. People look right at you but they don't see you. You talk to them, and they don't listen. It's pretty frustrating.
Almost as frustrating as knowing ghosts are there and not having anyone believe you. Before the group members met, they each knew they had some special psychic talent for sensing and seeing ghosts. But when no one believed them, they started doubting themselves.
Pete was ghost hunting at the Alamo last summer when he heard that Katie was starting a group. Terri saw her posting on the Internet. The group bonded immediately when they met on Halloween at the supposedly haunted Spring Cafe. Someone set a compass on the table (paranormal activity is usually magnetic), and the needle didn't shoot north.
"There was activity," Pete says.
Lone Star Spirits now claims eight members and about five "floaters" -- that is, people who don't go ghost hunting regularly. The group's mainstays, the four officers, all love Scooby Doo because the cartoon investigators solve mysteries involving ghosts. Pete leaves messages on the other officers' machines every day, calls them up at work, sings to them and makes them laugh. They're best friends.
They aren't exorcists -- they don't get rid of a ghost -- they just tell you whether it's there. One of their favorite spots is a field full of unmarked slave graves. A developer built houses over the cemetery. When the first family moved in, Pete says, toilets flushed all day long. Birds, snakes and black shadows attacked the family. The angry ghosts project pain into people's minds. The neighbors put in a pool and dug up a pair of bodies.
On Lone Star's first investigation, Pete made eye contact with a black shadow. The back of his neck hurt so badly he had to go sit in the car.
"You couldn't see the eyes," Katie says, "but you could feel them on you." She knew better than to look into them.
They chose the Old Spaghetti Warehouse for dinner tonight because it's supposed to be haunted. The story is that the building was a pharmaceutical warehouse whose owner died when the elevator cable snapped.
Before they order, Pete hands a waitress named Paulina his Lone Star Spirits business card and asks if the group can conduct an impromptu investigation. Pete's camera and his electromagnetic frequency detector are in the car; he doesn't leave home without them.
Paulina says yes. Pete's so excited his leg shakes through dinner.
"Could it possibly be spookier up here?" Katie asks, walking upstairs. "There's something," Terri says, arms outstretched. Definitely something.
Each member has a different talent. Terri's is that she can tell when something's not right, when a ghost is there. She spent her childhood hitting deserted forts, ghost towns and cemeteries with her father. She and her mom made their own Ouija boards on the kitchen table.
Nothing sets off Pete's EMF detector. It looks like a green circuit board with elf-sized light bulbs. The group got a deal: Their detectors were only $4 each since they don't have cases.
The three scatter on a hide-and-seek for something they probably won't see.
"It's not a lot of hocus-pocus magic," Pete explains, moving to the corner. "It's basically walking around getting a feeling for the place." His talent is that he can read a room, gauge the mood and the feeling of the space. "I get weird feelings over here," Pete says. Butterflies are barraging his stomach.
Across the room Terri is talking to the ghost. "Please, sir, won't you show us something? Let us know you're here." She always says "sir" or "ma'am" when she's chatting with a ghost. A devout Christian, she shows respect for the dead whether they deserve it or not. "You can never trust a spirit," Terri says. "They lie."
The hairs on Katie's arms and on the back of her neck stand up when she senses a ghost. Her eyes start to water, and she feels sinus pressure. Every time her arm hairs prickle, she calls Pete over to take a picture.
"It's cool in this spot," Pete says.
Katie points out he's under an air vent.
Okay, he says, but he doesn't think it's on. He snaps a picture.
Even if you can't see a ghost, sometimes you can catch it on film. It's not hard to do: Every time Pete has taken his camera out, he's gotten something. You can get a vortex, a globule, an ectoplasmic sphere, mist, half or full apparitions -- a face or just details. Sometimes ghosts are solid like Hamlet's fresh-dead father, but it takes an awful lot of energy to show that much of your body, Pete says, so a young ghost wouldn't have that power.
In photos, the ghosts usually look like white dots, flashes or shades on the photograph. They're the photos most of us won't pay for at the Fotomat.
"You'd be surprised how many ghosts are 'processing errors,' " Pete says. He tries to make sure that what he thinks is a ghost isn't dust on the lens or water on the film or light reflecting off a raindrop. He says the guys who develop his pictures at Walgreens know him pretty well. They lighten or darken his pictures or run them again and again to see if anything's there.
After searching the bathrooms, the three hunters walk through a door marked staff-only-do-not-enter, search the kitchen and find the elevator the warehouse owner died in. They climb aboard, and as they drop Katie worries that the cable's going to snap and they're going to die the same death as their ghost.
"That's all I need," she says, "to have my own group investigating me."
There isn't anything in the basement but old chairs, a nasty smell and a waitress who tells them about the time she was napping upstairs and -- it could've been customers roaming around, but -- something woke her up and scared the death out of her.
They give her their card and tell her to check out their web site and head back upstairs.
In the top-floor kitchen the security guard tells them that most of the haunting happened when they remodeled back in 1979.
One night the busboy was cleaning up, and the dishes jumped off the shelves and started smashing. Crying, the kid ran out of the building and got his father to come back and sit while he finished his shift. No one can make him go upstairs.
"Poltergeist," Katie says. She's heard this before.
"You want the lights on?" the guard asks.
"No," they say at once.
In the dining room, Pete's stomach is tightening. Katie and Terri come over and feel the hand grip their bellies, too.
Pete has pneumonia, and he's worried that it's holding him back. If you're tired or sick, you're not sensitive to spirits.
Another waitress tells them she thinks there are several spirits. The stairway came from England and the chandelier from Penn Station, so there might be all sorts of ghosts attached to the antiques.
"I got a feeling from that light," Terri says. And there's something she just doesn't like about the Thai statues. Bad vibes.
Most likely whole ghosts aren't roaming around, Katie says, but there could be residual energy if someone was killed in an antique chair or something. It's a law of physics that energy doesn't just disappear, she explains. It turns into something, and something might be a ghost.
Mandy, a waitress who's been listening, runs downstairs and returns towing Paulina, the waitress who served the group dinner.
"Paulina has something to tell you," Mandy says, letting go of Paulina's hand and pushing her forward. Paulina looks like she wants to run, cry, scream, sob -- just get the hell away. She never goes upstairs. She hates ghosts.
Paulina heard that a couple of guys saw a lady wearing a white dress passing through one night.
That's exactly what the ghost hunters wanted to hear. They are jumping-up-and-down excited about this. A full apparition! Definitely worth further investigation.
The next day, mist turned up in Pete's photos.
A few weeks later, Lone Star Spirits meets at Nichole Dobrowolski's house in Sugar Land. It's a Friday night, and candles burn in front of the red door on Nichole's front porch. Nichole is the fourth of the group's four officers and its lead researcher. She saw her first ghost 21 years ago, when she was four. Sleeping at her great-grandfather's farm in Weldon, Texas, she saw a bright yellow blur changing shapes outside the window. She told her grandfather it must have been a cow. But the house was up on blocks; a cow couldn't have been up that high.
At her parents' house her digital football game and little robots came on by themselves. When she checked, they didn't have any batteries. Unplugged, her Holly Hobbie sewing machine went crazy on its own. Her mom took it away.
Every house she has lived in was haunted. The ghost of a teenage boy lives with her now. Sometimes Nichole's dogs lie on their backs like they're getting their bellies rubbed, the way her grandpa rubbed them when he was alive. Other times, the basset hounds chase things that aren't there.
In her last house, Nichole heard slippers shuffling along the wood floors. They always stopped outside her bedroom. Sometimes the ghost would turn down the bedclothes. Other times it just rumpled the sheets.
Before that, she lived in a trailer in front of two unmarked graves. There, Nichole dreamed of a woman decomposing in her bed.
Like Pete, Nichole has seen her grandfather's ghost appear in her bedroom. She saw a glowing mist and reached out. It materialized, and the more she looked into the face, the more she knew it was him. He had a big smile with no teeth and was wearing a suit. The only time she'd seen her grandpa in a suit was at his funeral. She reached out again, and he disappeared.
Nichole's parents believe her now that she is lead researcher for Lone Star Spirits. Believing made them nervous. They started going to church more often.
Tonight the group isn't gathering to investigate Nichole's ghosts. They're headed to a cemetery about an hour down the road. They sit on Nichole's couch, prepping, looking at the ectoplasm and orbs she snapped on her last visit to the spot.
Pete refreshes their memory by reading Lone Star Spirits' 23 rules for ghost hunting, all which aim to make their documentation beyond reproof. For example, there's no taking pictures while driving down a dusty road; the dust could be mistaken for a ghost. No cigarette smoking where pictures are being taken. No drinking. No opening up cassette tapes until you're at the site. And no Ouija boards.
Their web site warns against using the board as an investigative tool. It's dangerous: You could get trapped in the board or let out an evil ghost. You wouldn't use a chain saw if you hadn't read the safety directions, would you?
"Ever seen the movie Witchboard?" Pete asks. "There's a lot of truth to that movie."
A good ghost hunter goes with her gut, Terri says. But you can't verify, check and confirm a feeling. So that's why the group uses cameras, tape recorders and EMF detectors, things that make measurements and yield data.
They climb into their cars and head into the darkness. At about 10 p.m., they're standing in a circle saying the Lord's Prayer; they always pray before a hunt. They tell the spirits that they're not there to harm, only to document. They ask the spirits not to hurt them.
They start roaming around, flashlights and lanterns in hand. Terri's EMF detector is stuffed in an empty pack of Camel Lights, and Nichole's is in a Ziploc baggie. Pete just carries his.
The ghost hunters crunch over twigs and thorns. Their dew-soaked sneakers sink into the mud. "I should've brought my machete," Carolyn says, trailing behind Pete.
A friend of Nichole's photographed a full apparition here, and her tape recorder turned up voices following her around asking who she was. She heard them tease her and felt spiders drop into her hair.
Pete feels something, but nothing really strong. As they get to the older graves, his heartbeat increases. His left hand is shaking, and he feels like someone's holding a pack of ice to his shoulder. Everything around him is warm. His arm's going numb, and his heart is pounding.
That's why he needs to take his damn medicine, Carolyn thinks. He forgot to take his blood pressure pill this morning. She took hers, and she feels fine.
But Nichole feels a presence, too. She moves her EMF around, and they can't figure out why they're not getting a spike. "I'm not crazy," Pete keeps repeating. They walk a few steps, and the cold comes with them. The ghost is moving.
Anger, loneliness and fear flood through Pete all at once. He's picking up the spirits' emotions.
"It's like a cloud moving around me," he says. "I'm breathing clouds."
Terri and Katie don't feel anything paranormal.
The ghost hunters gather and debate hitting another cemetery and a haunted house down the road. But Katie has a test in the morning, Nichole's tired and Pete doesn't want a three-hour drive home. Pete says the St. Michael's prayer to tell the spirits to stay in the cemetery.
"I closed everyone out," he says. "We can go."
He thinks the spirits want them to leave.
"It felt like we were being watched," Carolyn says.
"We were being watched," Pete says. "We were." He saw shadows, and he thinks he heard something say, "Hey."
"Let me see how fast I can get to the car," Carolyn says.
"That's my brave Carolyn," Pete says, following her.
He takes one last look, scanning the tombs, listening to the owl in the trees and the dog barking behind them. "There's a lot of lost souls out there," he says.
To see Lone Star Spirits' photos of ectoplasm, check this story's links at www.houstonpress.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.